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A textiles tour to dye for

Drifting through 'Tugboat Town' opens new horizons of artisan Tokyo

by Kit Nagamura

A landlocked train stop named Hikifune (Tugboat) begs a question. Two such stations in Tokyo’s downtown Sumida Ward — the other is nearby Keisei Hikifune — suggest there should be some answers.

I get out at Keisei Hikifune Station on a muggy afternoon during the Bon (Festival of the Dead) holiday with two goals in mind. One is to plumb the origin of the tugboat references; the other is to purchase a yukata, a lightweight cotton summer kimono.

As if welcoming celestial ancestors home for Bon, the skies are clear, but the only river I encounter runs down my back in the stultifying heat. I have called ahead to visit an artisan of indigo textiles, but stop by Hikifune Culture Center to ask directions.

With their simple instructions in mind, I am almost immediately lost. First, the street meanders, with squiggly offshoots that might or might not be counted as intersections. Then, the traffic — kids on bikes and platoons of matrons with baby buggies — is distracting. The atelier is supposedly near the local school, but no building stands out in the maze of two-story structures. In a narrow side alley, I resort to asking bemused residents. “You can’t miss it,” they say, giggling and pointing out general directions.

Even as I stand in the middle of what turns out to be the parking lot of the Indigo-Dyed Textile Museum, I am not certain I’m in the right place. A dashingly handsome semiclothed man pops out from a second floor apartment overhead. “Yes, this is it,” he confirms, and disappears. Glancing around, I spy a garage in which I can dimly make out tanks of liquid. I creep toward them, and at that moment, an elderly gentleman emerges from his home. He moves with great difficulty, bent and half-carrying one uncooperative leg.

“This happens to all of us in the trade,” 85-year-old Kenji Fujisawa tells me. “We get bent over like this.” There is no complaint in his voice, though, and as we venture in for a close look at the concrete vats of indigo, capped with a lapis lazuli sheen and a coppery-violet foam, his physical ailments seem to dissolve in the alchemy of his work.

“The dye is alive,” Fujisawa says, stroking the surface of the indigo tubs with a dowel. “It’s organic, like bread dough. When the foam is thick, you can tell it is robust and healthy, when it’s thin, it’s dying.”

There are three vats, each 2 meters deep, holding varying concentrations of indigo. They must be kept at a warm temperature and their fermenting mixture of water, leaves, bran and ash tended several times daily — a routine Fujisawa has perfected over 66 years in the business.

The smell of indigo is pungent, like cooking spinach. Fujisawa gently agitates the surface of one vat, and the liquid appears green. “The color oxidizes into a blue shade once dyed fabric has been exposed to air,” he explains.

Though somewhat reluctant to leave his vats, Fujisawa shows me into his tiny museum. The handsome guy upstairs, his 49-year-old son Yukihiro, calls down that he’s off to deliver a fabric order. “He will take over the business,” Fujisawa informs me with obvious pride, “just as I learned from my dad. There used to be many indigo dyers in the area, but my family may be the last.”

Fujisawa’s miniature museum is set up to demonstrate his technique of katazome (stenciled resist dyeing). Rice paste and other “secret ingredients” form the resist medium to be squeegeed through a shibugami — a rice-paper stencil reinforced with persimmon juice, then heat cured. Some of the stencils are dizzyingly intricate, backed with barely visible silk mesh. Others, held together by individual silk threads, are the product of skills that Fujisawa says disappeared more than 70 years ago.

I ask him about purchasing one of his yukata, and he says, apologetically, “They’re ¥80,000.”

Before I can demur, Fujisawa leans outside and plucks me a spray of Polygonum tinctorium, the plant from whose leaves Japanese indigo is made. “It has seeds,” he tells me with a kind smile. “Plant them in March. Make your own dye.”

Before I move on, he suggests I visit another local textile museum, and then cruise Kira-Kira Tachibana Dori, an old shopping street nearby.

I head off southeasterly and come across Order Y-Shirts Kuroda, a tidy storefront advertising tailor-made shirts. Shelves of samples show off a boggling variety of cuffs and collars.

“We’ve been here 80 years,” Yukio Kuroda says. “I took over my dad’s business, but he wouldn’t teach me anything. I had to go apprentice out somewhere else first, then I came back and watched him carefully.”

Kuroda, 64, with his 60-year-old wife, Sachiko, will whip up a standard design for ¥7,500, but they also fashion bespoke, one-of-a-kind shirts from vintage cloth.

Business must be booming, I remark, as they are working during the holidays. They laugh, and show me what they are currently sewing — a series of flags for their daughter’s school event. Lucky daughter, I think.

I wend through homes quieted by the holidays, veering slightly north to the neighborhood of Yahiro. Trellises thick with wisteria and morning glories hide buildings, but from one comes the sound of chanting, mixing with the thrum of cicadas.

At (long name alert) Edo Komon and Edo Sarasa Daimatsu Company, I meet Kazuko and Ryuichi Nakajyo, 60 and 68, who explain to me the two different stencil techniques for dyeing cotton and silk. Edo Komon is characterized by its patterns of miniscule dots or teeny shapes and exudes an extremely subdued elegance; Edo Sarasa, on the other hand, requires at least 30 different plates to produce its richly colored designs which carry a distinct Indian and Persian influence.

I mention my search for a yukata, and Ryuichi tells me that I can order one from him during June and July, for about ¥13,000, but he is sold out now. When I note that this price is lower than Fujisawa’s, but still seems high, Ryuichi takes out a pattern book and flips open a page. “These samples are 150 years old,” he says. “But look, the colors are still perfect. You can get a cheap yukata printed in China, but it won’t last like this.” He then demonstrates how the patterns on his fabrics penetrate both sides, in elegant sharp designs.

Even with products that are clearly superior, it is hard to keep a traditional business going, Ryuichi admits. “In fact,” he says, “of the 20 or so craftsmen currently operating small museums in Sumida, about half will disappear next year.”

Part of the problem is distribution, Kazuko explains, and the other is making items that people need today. She pulls out pattern-dyed leather goods, nifty card cases and wallets, to show me one way their company has branched out.

“These are tricky to make,” she explains. “Leather has imperfections and the dye has to sink in just so.” I pick up a brilliant red purse designed for the Wako department store, with the dyed pattern perfectly matched at every corner. “That one’s not for sale, maybe,” she says protectively — clearly in love with it.

I purchase a few tenugui (hand towels) in bold designs pretty enough to frame, and thank the Nakajyos for interrupting their holidays to talk with me. I’ll be back for more gift shopping later.

On the perplexingly winding road again, I finally locate Kira-Kira Tachibana Dori. My translation skills abandon me. “Twinkling Citrus Avenue?” Whatever. The long shopping street is packed with bicycles and boisterous grannies bartering for flowers, fruit, tofu and fish. Hungry, I stop at a stall to gaze at a basket of massive karinto — fried brown-sugar confections that resemble something post-digestive. Vendor Yamaki smacks me on the arm, hard, for my earthy observation, and insists that I buy a bag. A group of housewives gather, and good-natured insults start to fly back and forth. I give in to the hard sell, and I’m not alone. Yamaki is a match for the ladies of Twinkling Citrus Avenue.

I am headed toward Oshiage Station, but first stop in at Hari Fuku Yago, where Misao Tsunoda,62, offers what is becoming a rarified service in Japan. Her shop is where you take your kimono to have it unsewn and cleaned, piece by piece. The process requires a month and is not cheap, but it is possible to remove many stains, Tsunoda tells me. “Tell people not to throw out their kimono,” she pleads.

As we page through photos of her father, who started the business — “Look, here he’s tubby before the war, and here skinny afterwards!” — it occurs to me to ask her about the “tugboat” mystery. “Oh,” she says, “did you notice how the road squiggles around near the station?” I nod. “Well, they built the road on what used to be a muddy river, where little boats, known as hikibune in the Edo Period (1603-1867), would go back and forth.”

Mysteries solved and marvels seen, I walk past numerous wooden homes, some predating World War II, toward the future, embodied by Tokyo Sky Tree, the digital-communications tower slated to reach over 610 meters by completion in 2011. Hopefully the new tree won’t cause the old neighborhood to lose its roots and dye out.